Young People & Social Media

Digital and social media use is a central part of the daily lives of the majority of young people. Most can’t imagine life without their mobile phone and Internet access in general. Losing or breaking their mobile phone is frustrating and disrupts their family and social life.

Social media & social lives

Social media sites – Facebook in particular – are so integrated into a young person’s social life that they are not really regarded as being separate from their offline world. Many claimed to be permanently connected, even whilst in school. They would be ready to check notifications and messages immediately. A site such as Facebook is not only a social space in its own right but is also used to organise events, parties, meet ups and even phone calls.

Social media use plays an important part in the actualisation of a young person’s identity. Their Facebook wall, their ‘profile picture’, comments and posts made to others and (crucially for some, despite not always wanting to admit that this is the case) their number of ‘friends’, plays a part in the way in which they are perceived, also in an offline context. A few people even admitted to writing ‘fake posts’, claiming to be socialising when they weren’t in order to “seem more interesting”. Whilst young people seemed to view their digital and perhaps more controlled representation of identity as one and the same as their ‘offline self’, on reflection some could identify points of difference which could create slight friction or new dynamics in friendships.

The main reason for having a Facebook account seemed to be that everyone else did; the fear of missing out is a motivating factor. Of all the young people we spoke to, only one individual did not have a Facebook account. Others in the group found it unusual and encouraged him to get one without having clear positive reasons for doing so beyond ‘well, why not?’ His reason for not having an account was also vague: he put it down to the fact that he had had never one when he was younger, so had simply “not got into the habit” and didn’t feel that he was missing anything.

Social and digital media use makes up for a large part of a young person’s leisure time. Even whilst engaging in social activities, most young people remain connected, simultaneously publicising their activity through photos, posts and videos.

“My friend went on holiday up North for a couple of weeks and didn’t have any internet. Was like he had disappeared off the Earth. He got so bored by the end, he started calling us.”

The young people we worked with named social media as their main source of news; both in terms of world affairs, ‘celebrity gossip’ and updates from friends, acquaintances and family. The Internet also seemed to provide their main access to the arts, through the streaming and downloading of films, music, comics and visual art.

Texting and instans messaging remain an important means of direct, immediate, one-to-one communication between friends and parents, mostly to ask specific questions and more personal communications.

Social media blurs social spaces

Through Facebook in particular, the different components of a person’s social network that would normally remain more or less separate become increasingly mixed. In a single digital space, young people communicate (either directly or indirectly) and simultaneously with: family members; school, college or university friends and acquaintances of different ages and social circles; work colleague; friends from different cultural, sporting and shared interest groups; neighbours; friends of friends; parents of friends; and complete strangers. The impact on identity creation and self-realisation needs further examining.

“Most of my Facebook friends are from school. but I’ve got the lads from the football team as well and people on my street and around. My mum is on Facebook and my uncles, but my dad hates it. Some of my friends’ mums have added me too.”

Most popular social media sites

Facebook and YouTube were by far most popular social networking sites amongst the young people attending our engagement sessions. They were far more interested and engaged in conversations about Facebook and YouTube than any other social networking sites mentioned. Twitter and Tumblr were also well known, but used by less. Many commented that they ‘didn’t see the point’ of Twitter.

Most of the young people professed to using Facebook very heavily despite having far more negative things to say about it. Importantly, most seemed to enjoy complaining about it but the perceived negatives did not dissuade them from using the site.

In comparison Youtube had far fewer complaints, mainly around the amount of ‘trolling’ in comment streams. However, this abuse was seen as easier to deal with than if it had occurred on Facebook, as it was deemed less personal and targeted. Many in fact found arguments within YouTube comment streams entertaining.

Two other forms of social media sparked interest and lively discussion: the site ‘AskFm’ and the app ‘Snapchat’, largely due to their respective notoriety (AskFm in particular) and novelty.

AskFm allows users to ask questions and others to reply – all anonymously. Abuse runs rife in the answers and the resulting ‘cyberbullying’ contribute to the site’s notoriety.

Opinions were mixed. Most people seemed appalled or dismissive of the site, unable to understand why others continued to use it. All said however, they had friends who continued to use the site and complained about it; demonstrating a fascination with the site despite – or perhaps because of – the risk of abuse.

Mobile phone app Snapchat allows users to send images or videos with a text message. The content disappears very quickly after being seen. Whilst also having an air of notoriety, the attraction seemed to be largely positive due to the novelty and the potential to share jokes with friends. However, due to the nature of the group sessions, it is unlikely that topics such as ‘sexting’ for which Snapchat has recently earned this notoriety would have been discussed openly.

“I had an AskFM account for about a week because everyone at school had one, but I deleted it. I didn’t really get it and it was just full of abuse. Some of the people in my class still have it but I don’t understand why. They’re always just complaining loads on Facebook about what people have said to them on it.”


Digital gaming was seen as a key leisure activity, particularly by young men. Social gaming and individual gaming were seen differently. Many young men would spend long hours playing together, either in the same room or in an online space, utilising networked consoles (X-box Live was the key example.)

Individual gaming was generally discussed in terms of addiction or ‘procrastination’. Participants frequently mentioned the the game ‘Candy Crush’ (a multiple level, sweet themed logic game), described as being annoyingly addictive. Many said that they or their friends would often disengage from conversations and social situations in order to play the game on their phone.

“A couple of my friends are just obsessed with Candy Crush. We’ll be sitting having a conversation and they’ll just be looking down at their phone all the time, playing it. They get really annoyed when they can’t complete a level too.”

Talkers & Stalkers

The young people involved in the engagement groups often talked about social media users as generally falling into two camps: ‘a talker or a stalker’. ‘Talkers’ are active users, who generate and disseminate a lot of content. ‘Stalkers’ are passive users, consuming content created by the ‘talkers’ and generating far less of their own. Individuals fit the categories to varying extent and may shift between them.

Use patterns are of course far more complex and nuanced and different sites afford different behaviours. Individuals will not always have a consistent pattern of use and may go through ‘phases’, which can be telling as to a change in state of mind.

Changes in a young person’s patterns of use of social media can indicate changes in mental state and wellbeing.

Changing interactions and etiquette

Every new form of digital and social media creates a slightly different set behaviours and social norms. They are constantly being altered and re-designed, and at an ever increasing pace. Even the smallest changes in interaction can cause subtle shifts in behaviour and new sets of social pressures.

One example came up repeatedly in discussions: when a Facebook user sends a private message, the exact time at which it was read is now visible. This small change has created a new set of anxieties for young people. They feel pressured to reply immediately, often feeling guilty if they do not do so. Equally, they worry if they see that the message has been received but not replied to, beginning to second guess reasons for this.

Social capital and inclusion

Social networks can be seen to contain key social influencers. These users will be vocal, have a large amount of ‘followers’ or ‘friends’ and will therefore have the widest reach in anything they post or share.

When discussing with young people the often very regimented social structure within schools, we did see some difference in this online. We were told stories of young people deemed to have less social capital having the confidence to speak to groups or individuals outside of their normal social group online, in a way that wouldn’t happen school. However, this online confidence was not generally seen to subsequently translate back into the school environment.

It is difficult to conclude much in terms of social isolation as it was not something that the young people taking part in the engagement groups felt applied to them (or were willing to admit was the case.) There was one sensitive discussion, however, with an individual who considered himself quite socially isolated. He didn’t view Facebook (the only networking site he used) as aiding his social life in this respect, as he only really used it to talk to cousins living abroad and to read updates from others without engaging. Instead, he received support through an after school group made up of students from mixtures of years and classes.

Gender Differences

Participants noted differences in male and female interactions with social and digital media, and in communicating in general.

For our engagement group participants, young women are seemingly more able to discuss and express their emotions and admit distress; to each other, and to male friends on an individual basis – often through Facebook. They were more likely to use lengthy private messages in order to do this, or to send text messages.

Young men were seen as less able or willing to express themselves as easily and freely. Peer support amongst young men takes a different form. They are often aware of each other’s problems and support each other through jokes, making light of the situation and shared deferral activities.

Many discussions on gender differences would begin with the assertion that young men are simply not as emotional as young women, and that expressing emotion freely was a sign of weakness and lack of masculinity. When asked to reflect on this, however, most would begin to question the truth of this.

Of course, this is not always the case and gender cannot be defined in such simple terms. Crucially though, this is the way in which most young people themselves perceive gender differences in communication, and hence this fuels the enactment of these roles.